I can’t imagine going to Kyoto and not taking a walk. What would be the point if you didn’t meander through its narrow streets, lined with old wooden homes, teahouses, craft stores, and temples, stopping to watch, say, an old man make tatami mats or a woman arrange delicate sweets in her centuries-old shop like they were expensive pieces of jewelry?
Kyoto’s real treasures aren’t the kinds of things you’ll see on a bus tour, nor will you find most of them on a map. Rather, these are the tangible rewards of exploring Kyoto on your own two feet?the intangible rewards go much deeper. I may be sentimental, but Kyoto affects me more than any other Japanese town. The beauty of this ancient capital absolutely tugs at my heart, making me wistful for all the things that didn’t survive into the 21st century—and incredulous that so much could have survived at all. I walk Kyoto’s lanes like a person possessed, my imagination working overtime as I wonder what scenes of everyday life may have played out on these very same streets long ago. If you spend your days in Kyoto racing around in a taxi or bus from one temple to another, the essence of Japan’s former capital, and its charm, may literally pass you by.
Practically every neighborhood in Kyoto warrants exploration, including the one right outside your hotel or Japanese inn. My own personal favorites, however, are in East Kyoto. I love walking from Sanjusangendo Hall all the way to Ginkakuji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion). I usually break it into two days, but even if you have only one day to devote to all of Kyoto, you can do no better than to spend at least a few hours here.
Highlights include Sanjusangendo Hall, stretching almost 400 feet and containing more than 1,000 images of the thousand-handed Kannon; the Kyoto National Museum with its many treasures from Kyoto’s past; Kiyomizu Temple, perched on a hill and supported by 139 pillars, each 49 feet high; Kodaiji Temple with a beautiful garden designed by master gardener Kobori Enshu; Nanzenji Temple with its famous painted sliding door of a tiger drinking water in a bamboo grove and a Zen rock garden that I think rivals Kyoto’s most famous rock garden, Ryoanji; and Ginkakuji, built as a retirement villa for a shogun and designed purely for enjoying the cultural pursuits of the time, like moon viewing and the tea ceremony. Ah, those were the days!
But it’s not just these historic gems that make a stroll in East Kyoto stand out, but rather what you can see and do on the way. Craft and souvenir shops line pedestrian slopes leading to Kiyomizu, while on the grounds of the temple are open-air pavilions, shaded by Japanese maples and offering noodles, shaved ice, and other refreshing snacks. I never visit Heian Shrine, built in 1895 to commemorate Kyoto’s 1,100th birthday, without a stroll through its Meiji-era garden famous for its weeping cherry trees. There’s a wooden bridge here, topped by a phoenix, with a bench where I always pause to soak in the views. And whose spirits wouldn’t be lifted with a walk along the Philosopher’s Pathway, flanking a tranquil canal lined with cherry trees?
There are also lots of traditional restaurants in East Kyoto, many with histories that go back for centuries and with tatami-floored rooms overlooking exquisite gardens. Like the traditional Kyoto cuisine for which this ancient capital is famous, Kyoto, too, is to be savored slowly, a feast for the eyes and the senses.
People always ask which place in Japan is my favorite. That’s impossible to answer (it would be like asking which son I like better!), but I do know this: If you have time to visit only one city in Japan, Kyoto should be it.